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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Mind-Body Oriented Psychotherapy: Somatic Experiencing

Somatic Experiencing is a mind-body oriented psychotherapy that was developed by psychologist, Peter Levine, Ph.D. One of the basic premises of Somatic Experiencing is that people have a natural ability to heal emotionally if they are provided with the tools. Somatic Experiencing recognizes that there is a mind-body connection, and traumatic memories are not just stored in the mind--they're also stored in our bodies as well.


Mind-Body Oriented Psychotherapy: Somatic Experiencing

Experiences of Being Retraumatized in Regular Talk Therapy:
When traumatic memories are triggered, they're often overwhelming for people. Regular talk therapy is often inadequate for dealing with trauma.

Years ago, therapists used to think that all clients needed to do was to "vent" about their traumas and they would experience an emotional release that would be curative. However, now that we know more about the mind-body connection, trauma experts know that not only is it not helpful to just have someone venting about their trauma--it can actually be a retraumatizing experience.

Why is this? When a someone recounts their traumatic experience, if he has not developed coping mechanisms (called "resources" in Somatic Experiencing) to deal with the trauma, he's just reexperiencing the same emotions and physical body sensations that he experienced at the time of the trauma. (This assumes that the client is not completely cut off from his feelings, which is another type of traumatic reaction called dissociation.) In effect, he is reliving the trauma and going around and around in the same trauma "vortex," so to speak. There is usually no healing going on in this situation.

Titrating Trauma Experiences in Somatic Experiencing:
Somatic Experiencing (SE) techniques allow the SE therapist to help the client titrate the traumatic experience into manageable pieces. The Somatic Experiencing therapist doesn't go directly for the most traumatic aspect of the experience immediately. As previously mentioned, the SE therapist makes sure that the client has adequate internal and external resources to call on before doing the trauma work.

Mind-Body Oriented Psychotherapy: Somatic Experiencing

Once the SE therapist and client begin processing the trauma, the experience is dealt with in manageable parts, often starting with what might have been happening that was positive just before the trauma. So for instance, to give a simple example, if someone was in a car accident, she might have been enjoying her favorite song on the radio just before impact.

Why is this significant?

The SE therapist helps the client to recognize where she is holding onto emotions in the body. Often, these traumatic emotions are "frozen," so to speak, in the body, without the client even realizing it.

So, to help clients to deal with the difficult emotions that are stored in the body, it helps to access internal resources.

So, in the above example, this client has also stored in her body the pleasant experience of listening to her favorite song. In effect, this is a positive resource that the client can use. Connecting to these pleasant feelings is one part, of many, that would help to fortify the client to deal with the trauma.

As part of processing traumatic experiences, in addition to helping clients to use both internal and external sources, the Somatic Experiencing therapist also helps clients to develop a greater emotional capacity to deal with the trauma before the worst part of the trauma is processed. In SE, this is called, metaphorically, developing a larger "container" for the experience.

What does this mean?

Well, if we think of pouring a lot of water into a small container, we know what will happen--the container will be flooded and the water will spill all over the place.

Similarly, Somatic Experiencing therapists recognize that people have "emotional containers" of various sizes.

Some people have larger "emotional containers" than others and they can absorb more emotional content. However, people who have been traumatized, by definition, have been "flooded" by emotional experiences that are too overwhelming for them and their "emotional containers" were not large enough. This is not a negative comment about the client. It is a recognition that we all have our limits.

It's the Somatic Experiencing therapist's job to help clients develop a larger "emotional container" in order for the client not to be flooded while processing the trauma in therapy. In doing so, Somatic Experiencing therapists help clients to become more resilient and better able to process the trauma without becoming retraumatized.

In Somatic Experiencing, after a client has been prepared by developing resources and a larger "emotional container," the therapist helps the client to titrate the experience through a process called "pendulation."

Somatic Experiencing and the Process of Pendulation
An example of this might be that the client has already learned to visualize a "relaxing place" in his mind's eye prior to processing the trauma.

Not only has the client learned to visualize this place, but he has also learned how to shift his emotional and physical state from one of high emotional activation, which would be too uncomfortable, to a relative state of calm.

Usually, after clients have experienced some degree of calm, they're willing to go back to processing the trauma, knowing that if they experience a degree of emotional activation that is too high again, they can go back to accessing the relaxing place.

The Somatic Experiencing pendulation process allows clients to be in control. Somatic Experiencing assumes that clients know innately what's best under these circumstances. The Somatic Experiencing therapist is there to teach and facilitate the process.

Does this mean that Somatic Experiencing is effortless and there is no discomfort? No, it doesn't. But it does mean that, as opposed to regular talk therapy, the Somatic Experiencing therapist works to ensure that the client is not overwhelmed and not retraumatized.

One blog post is not sufficient to cover Somatic Experiencing. To learn more about Somatic Experiencing, I suggest that you read Peter Levine's books, each of which are written in an accessible way for the general public. His first book is called Waking the Tiger, and his latest book is called In An Unspoken Voice.

About Me
I am a licensed psychotherapist, Somatic Experiencing therapist, hypnotherapist, and EMDR therapist in NYC.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me: josephineolivia@aol.com.